Procrastination post alert! I know that in response to some of my previous posts relating to the fashions appearing in the tv adaptations of Agatha Christie's Marple and Poirot novels, there was doubt as to whether in fact fashion and clothing were really as important to Christie's original stories as the filmed versions (or my clothing-obsessed posts about them) made them out to be. After having read several of Christie's novels, I would like to state, as an entree into a few screencaps I was able to get from the trailer video for the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express airing, that in fact, clothing actually does figure fairly prominently in Christie's texts.
For one thing, fashion plays a key role in setting up characterization; as is the case in both fiction and life, the outer trappings of a person are often a poor basis of judging the inner qualities of a person, but, as Christie often reveals, details of appearance can sometimes reveal things even when people are not willing to verbally tell the truth.
I give you an example of the centrality of clothing in Agatha Christie's works from the fashion-obsessed description given of a couple riding on the train with Poirot in the novel, Murder on the Orient Express: "The woman opposite [Poirot] was a mere girl--twenty at a guess. A tight-fitting little black coat and skirt, a white satin blouse, small chic black toque perched at the fashionable outrageous angle. She had a beautiful foreign-looking face, dead white skin, large brown eyes, jet black hair. She was smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Her manicured hands had deep red nails. She wore one emerald set in platinum." Now, being that Poirot is overtly described as being incredibly meticulous and even "dandified" when it comes to the details of his own dress and appearance, it is not surprising he should be so fastidious about the finer points of his travelling companions' clothes. However, without giving anything away, I will simply state that such textual details do play more than a frivolous role in the narrative structure, characterization, and dare I say themes of the text.
I would also argue that Christie's descriptions of characters' clothing serve to both reflect the workings of the class-obsessed world in which she lived and wrote, and subtly critique it. Brief explanation:What's interesting is that most, if not all, of Christie's novels are set amongst the wealthy. Her detectives are successful because they are sort of removed from the glitz and glitter (as well as the marital strifes--probably not a coincidence neither Marple nor Poirot are married, though both seem to present some very wise ideas about love). By being social outsiders of sorts, they are perhaps even better able to avoid being dazzled by the showy details of every dazzling frock and blindingly big jewel flashed about by the wealthy. However, in order to highlight the workings of the class system, its excesses, its deceptions, and the rather marginalized places which her Marple and Poirot occupy within it, the novelist (and indeed the film-maker) must rely quite heavily on the characters' wardrobes. All in all, my point is that, by overlooking the function and importance of clothing in Christie's novels one might miss they way they seem to be a central part of the novelist's representation of--and possibly wry but subtle social critique of--the English class system of the early 20th century. Okay, bearing all this in mind, you can bet I'll be especially keen to see how the tv version of Murder on the Orient Express translates Christie's textual descriptions of clothing into actual costumes. They'd better be good ;) Here's a sneak peek, which suggests they shall:
When Daphne Park was revealed as the face of British Intelligence byPanorama in 1993, many were surprised to find that the James Bond of the public imagination bore a greater resemblance to Miss Marple: a woman whose genial, maiden aunt exterior belied a doughty, pugnacious character. Her drink of choice was Earl Grey tea, "stirred not shaken", as she put it.
But as one of the first women to do a fully operational job throughout her SIS career, Daphne Park demonstrated that a woman could be an immensely competent officer on the ground. Extracting information in the middle of an African jungle or burning top secret documents (and then hiding the ashes in her knickers) were simply part of the job. Though she once talked her way out of being lynched by a mob, she did not dream of carrying a gun.
As a woman who listed "difficult places" as a recreation in Who's Who, Daphne Park made something of a career out of some of the world's worst trouble spots, and her thirst for adventure drove her to turn down safer and more financially rewarding jobs early on in her career.
She was posted to the Belgian Congo in 1959, where the subsequent granting of independence produced one of the principal crises of the Cold War years. Here, Daphne Park dealt with the inevitable death threats and lawlessness of society with habitual sangfroid. On one occasion, when living alone, she chased off an intruder by leaning out of her window and shouting: "I am a witch! And if you don't instantly go away your hands and feet will fall off!"
One of her greatest strengths was her ability to attract and win over the most influential people, her natural ebullience and charm providing her own best cover. In Africa, she succeeded in forging strong friendships with local leaders despite their instinctive political dislike and fear of the colonial powers. On arriving in the Belgian Congo, she insisted on being housed alone on the commuter route into town while other Europeans cowered in a safeguarded quarter. Before long, she was entertaining Africans with early morning tumblers of whisky on her veranda, and by the time independence came, she knew the prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and half his cabinet.
Her acts of courage reaped rich rewards. She once smuggled Lumumba's private secretary to safety in the boot of her little Citroen 2CV. "[The car] was excellent cover," she said. "Nobody ever takes 2CVs seriously. But that's not why I had it – if they'd let me loose in anything bigger I'd have been lethal. My director once told me the bravest thing he'd ever done in his life was to be driven round by me." Lumumba's secretary subsequently became head of the Intelligence Service in the new government, and one of the most useful sources in Daphne Park's career.
On another occasion she was driving a Land Rover when she saw a machete-wielding mob coming towards her. She jumped out, stuck her head under the bonnet and told her potential attackers: "Thank goodness you've come along – I think I have a problem with my carburettor." The men laid down their weapons and offered their assistance.
"I always looked just like a fat missionary, which was very useful," she said in later life. "Missionaries get around, you know."
Daphne Margaret Sybil Désirée Park was born in Surrey on September 1 1921. Her father, John Alexander Park, had contracted tuberculosis as a young man and been sent to Africa on a "cure". Settling there, he moved from South Africa to what was then Nyasaland, where he became an intelligence officer in the First World War, worked as a tobacco farmer and then moved to Tanganyika as an alluvial gold prospector. Six months after her birth, Daphne travelled to Africa with her mother, Doreen, to join him there.
The family home was a mud hut without running water or electricity. Daphne pegged her first gold claim aged three, finding a single nugget which she then lost. She had no formal education until the age of 11, when she walked three days to the nearest road and hitched a lorry ride "through a cloud of locusts" to Dar es Salaam.
There she "switched on my first electric light and pulled my first loo chain" and sailed back to England to attend the Rosa Bassett school in Streatham. She would never again see her brother, David, who died aged 14. As for her parents, it would be another 15 years before she laid eyes on them.
Her unconventional upbringing had shielded her from British prejudices, and she never felt disadvantaged by her gender or her lack of money. Determined to be a diplomat, she convinced her county council to create a special scholarship enabling her to take up her place to read French at Somerville College, Oxford. But on graduating in 1943, she turned down jobs in the Treasury and the Foreign Office to make a direct contribution to the war effort.
Daphne Park was summoned for interview at FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – which had evolved to undertake unconventional tasks among the Services). There she was vetted for her usefulness in encryption but became the first person ever to fail the final examination, by providing an over-elaborate response to a question about ciphers. Fortunately, her paper found its way to the head of coding at the Special Operations Unit, who put her on his staff. It was the beginning, as she admitted, of her "very interesting war".
After a period instructing a range of agents in the use of codes, Daphne Park was promoted to the rank of sergeant and sent to Milton Hall in Leicestershire, where she helped to train the Jedburghs, special teams formed to support the Resistance in Europe. She was, however, sacked for insubordination after she told a senior officer he was incompetent, and in 1945 went to work as a briefing and dispatching officer in North Africa.
Daphne Park's wartime activities in SOE left her deeply compromised in Europe and disqualified her from entry into the Service. Instead, bitterly disappointed, and still a FANY officer, she was sent to Vienna in 1946 to set up an office for FIAT (Field Intelligence Agency Technical), directing the search for Axis scientists who had been involved in interesting projects during the war and were wanted for interview by the British. Her assistance to SIS secured her an interview back in London. She was duly offered a job and entered the Service in July 1948, the time of the Berlin airlift.
Her work in Vienna strongly influenced her career. The kidnapping of scientists by the Soviets in the postwar years and the disappearance of Poles and Czechs she had trained during the war made Daphne Park determined to discover more about the communist regime. After two years in London, she went to Cambridge to learn Russian, and in 1954 – after a two-year stint in Paris working undercover as part of the UK delegation to Nato – she was appointed second secretary at the Moscow embassy.
Daphne Park arrived in the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. Stalin had died the previous year, Beria had been shot and the Bulganin-Khrushchev thaw was beginning. The Soviet Union was opening up, and she travelled widely, reporting on all aspects of Soviet life. Once, during the Suez crisis, when Britain was under attack at the UN, demonstrators swarmed angrily up to the British embassy. As the riot unfolded, the embassy's military and naval attachés, in full uniform, approached a Russian officer who was observing the destruction. They saluted him and said: "The ambassador would be obliged to know when this demonstration will end, as he is having guests for luncheon." According to Daphne Park, the reply came: "This spontaneous demonstration of the people's wrath will end at a quarter to one precisely."
Her tradecraft was impeccable. SIS had taken on the case of a Russian spy in Canada who had been turned by the Canadians but then recalled to the Soviet Union. There were fears that he had been compromised, and he was instructed to appear, alone, in a particular Moscow street at a particular time carrying a shopping bag in his left hand. Daphne Park was sent to the rendezvous. When he arrived with the bag in his right hand, and in the company of a woman, she correctly surmised that he was indicating that he had indeed been compromised.
In September 1969, following her postings to the Congo and to Zambia (in 1964), Daphne Park was appointed Consul-General in Hanoi, listed as "the worst mission in the world" by inspectors in 1956. "It was an uncomfortable life, and extremely unhealthy," she said. "My house was full of rats."
Daphne Park's attempts to get to know the Vietnamese were constantly frustrated: she was refused a language teacher and even a bicycle. She did, however, establish informal relationships with the Provisional Revolutionary Government representative in North Vietnam (although the PRG was not officially recognised by the British) and the Soviet Ambassador, and obtained important information about the political climate and psychology of the Vietnamese.
Daphne Park always felt, contrary to popular opinion, that defeat and the subsequent spread of communism through Indo-China could have been avoided had American troops held out. "The writing might have been on the walls in the South, but it was on the North Vietnamese walls too. If the Americans hadn't succumbed to the tremendous pressure at home, history might have been different."
Her final foreign posting, as chargé d'affaires to Outer Mongolia, was in 1972. She spent the rest of her career in London.
In 1979, retiring two years early from the Service, Daphne Park was elected Principal of Somerville College, where she was known to students as "Daffers". Although she had emerged unscathed from some extremely tricky diplomatic situations, she had more difficulty coming to terms with Oxford's procedural codes, and the burden of her responsibilities was increased by a sudden deterioration in her mother's health.
Though some were critical of her early performance as Principal, she made an enormous contribution to the college. In spite of her age, she was aware of the world her undergraduates faced and worked tirelessly to forge links between Somerville and the world of industry, garnering subsidised lectureships and fellowships.
She set up the Open Evening for Industry for second-year undergraduates, providing them with information about careers and useful contacts. She identified the need for extra funding and launched the Somerville Appeal in 1983. She was appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor of Oxford in 1985.
Her enthusiasm for each project infected those around her, and her encouragement and generosity were unstinting. Her former secretary recalls Daphne Park dispatching her housekeeper on more than one occasion with a Thermos of soup to comfort some ailing don.
Nor were her commitments limited to the university. She was a BBC governor between 1982 and 1987 under the then Director-General, Alasdair Milne, who identified her as a hardline opponent in his memoirs. Always outspoken, Daphne Park argued that the BBC should be run more efficiently, and she made a strong stand against the controversial Real Lives documentary about the IRA and Loyalist extremists.
Among her many other post-SIS activities, she was chairman of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee to the Lord Chancellor between 1985 and 1991 and a member of the British Library Board from 1983 to 1989.
She was appointed OBE in 1960 for her protection of British subjects in time of danger in the Congo, and appointed CMG in 1971 for her service in Hanoi.
In 1990 she was created a Life Peer. In the House of Lords – which she toured in a motorised wheelchair – she became a firm friend of another formidable Cold War spy, Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale. In her working life, Lady Park said, she had "abhorred Communism", calling it "a wicked, evil regime. It rests on terror."
She contrasted the threat of communism of her day with the new dangers posed by Islamic extremists: "There is quite a difference between our government saying: 'We wish to know in advance the undeclared intention of government X' and 'We want to know that next week somebody like the Shoe Bomber is going to pop up'. To this end, she defended proposals to increase the period in which terrorist suspects could be held without charge from 28 to 42 days, saying: "The nature of the threat has become far more complex."
She admitted that, during her career as an agent, she had been terrified on several occasions. "There are frightening moments and there are moments when you should have been frightened but weren't," she said. "I do not have courage, but I do have a mixture of curiosity and optimism." Despite the awful sights to which she had been witness, Daphne Park continued to display that optimism in her final years. "This is a marvellous world," she said. "I wish I could go on and on."
Daphne Park never married: "I had four or five love affairs, like most people – but only one that really mattered, and that ended in death, unfortunately."